When SpaceX’s Crew Dragon took NASA astronauts to the ISS near the end of May, the launch brought back a familiar sight. For the first time since the space shuttle was retired, American rockets were launching from American soil to take Americans into space.

Inside the vehicle, however, things couldn’t have looked more different. Gone was the sprawling dashboard of lights and switches and knobs that once dominated the space shuttle’s interior. All of it was replaced with a futuristic console of multiple large touch screens that cycle through a variety of displays. Behind those screens, the vehicle is run by software that’s designed to get into space and navigate to the space station completely autonomously.

“Growing up as a pilot, my whole career, having a certain way to control a vehicle—this is certainly different,” Doug Hurley told NASA TV viewers shortly before the SpaceX mission. Instead of calling for a hand on the control stick, navigation is now a series of predetermined inputs. The SpaceX astronauts may still be involved in decision-making at critical junctures, but much of that function has moved out of their hands.

Does this matter? Software has never played a more critical role in spaceflight. It has made it safer and more efficient, allowing a spacecraft to automatically adjust to changing conditions. According to Darrel Raines, a NASA engineer leading software development for the Orion deep space capsule, autonomy is particularly key for areas of “critical response time”—like the ascent of a rocket after liftoff, when a problem might require initiating an abort sequence in just a matter of seconds. Or in instances where the crew might be incapacitated for some reason.

And increased autonomy is practically essential to making some forms of spaceflight even work. Ad Astra is a Houston-based company that’s looking to make plasma rocket propulsion technology viable. The experimental engine uses plasma made out of argon gas, which is heated using electromagnetic waves. A “tuning” process overseen by the system’s software automatically figures out the optimal frequencies for this heating. The engine comes to full power in just a few milliseconds. “There’s no way for a human to respond to something like that in time,” says CEO Franklin Chang Díaz, a former astronaut who flew on several space shuttle missions from 1986 to 2002. Algorithms in the control system are used to recognize changing conditions in the rocket as it’s moving through the startup sequence—and act accordingly. “We wouldn’t be able to do any of this well without software,” he says.

But overrelying on software and autonomous systems in spaceflight creates new opportunities for problems to arise. That’s especially a concern for many of the space industry’s new contenders, who aren’t necessarily used to the kind of aggressive and comprehensive testing needed to weed out problems in software and are still trying to

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By: Neel Patel
Title: Are we making spacecraft too autonomous?
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2020/07/03/1004788/spacecraft-spacefight-autonomous-software-ai/
Published Date: Fri, 03 Jul 2020 08:30:00 +0000




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